THE Scottish Police Authority has been forced into a humiliating u-turn on private committee meetings after a senior MSP told the body that it was “not the Kremlin you are running”.
Watchdog chiefs were planning a summer rethink of holding important business behind closed doors, but the SPA signalled it was abandoning the policy after a “shambolic" appearance in front of a Holyrood committee yesterday.
At one point during the stormy evidence session, SPA chair Andrew Flanagan was asked by a Tory member whether he had considered his position as a result of the row.
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In another development, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has asked Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) to bring forward an inspection of the SPA.
The SPA is the oversight body for Police Scotland, but its own practices have been heavily criticised in recent months.
In December, a review by Mr Flanagan led to the watchdog backing private committee sessions and only publishing board papers on the day of a meeting.
Moi Ali, at that point an SPA board member, resigned after Mr Flanagan criticised her for questioning the two recommendations in public.
Mr Flanagan faced further criticism after he failed to pass on a scathing letter by HMICS on the private committee plan to his SPA board colleagues.
At a meeting of the Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny committee yesterday, Flanagan, SPA chief executive John Foley and civil servants faced a barrage of questions.
On the HMICS letter, SNP MSP Alex Neil said: "Every board member under the guidelines and under statute is entitled to know what the Chief Inspector of Constabulary is saying.
"These are very substantive points, very critical of the governance review in many respects."
He added: "This is not the Kremlin you are running, it is supposed to be an open public body, accountable ... you are accountable to the board members."
Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said there was a "culture of secrecy" within the SPA, while Conservative MSP Ross Thomson suggested the organisation was "not fit for purpose" and asked if Mr Flanagan had "thought about his position at all".
On his failure to share the letter, Mr Flanagan said: "I think because the issues had been well-trailed, they had been well-known. I didn't think it was necessary to circulate the letter itself."
Mr Flanagan said he had not considered his position as chair, adding: "I believe that I am doing an effective job."
After the bruising session, Flanagan quickly announced a rethink of private committee meetings: “I am committed to ensuring that the points made and issues raised by MSPs in today's Public Audit and Post Legislative Scrutiny committee session, and those of other key stakeholders, are considered by the full SPA board at the earliest public opportunity.
“As Chair, I will be recommending to the board an early change to our framework to allow the various committee chairs the discretion to hold all or part of future SPA committees in public.”
Mr Matheson said: “Openness and transparency are of the utmost importance to a public body such as the SPA so I welcome the proposed changes to their approach to committee meetings.
“However, given the level of interest in these matters I am seeking further assurance that all that can be done is being done.
“That is why I have written to HMICS asking them to bring forward part of their planned statutory inspection into the operation of the Authority, scheduled for later this year, which relates to transparency. I look forward to receiving their findings in due course.”
Following yesterday’s Holyrood session, the committee has also invited Ms Ali and Brian Barbour - who told the Herald he quit the SPA board over SNP Government interference - to give oral evidence.
Labour MSP Claire Baker said: “The SPA’s shambolic committee appearance will do nothing to reduce fears that they are an ineffective body in need of drastic overhaul.”